Why do we struggle with assertiveness?

Do you know why we struggle with assertiveness?

Lack of self-confidence can impact on your assertiveness
Lack of self-confidence can impact on your assertiveness

We’ve all probably thought to ourselves “I wish I could say no!” Well-meaning friends say “you need to be more assertive.” and “you need to learn how to say no.” Why do we struggle with assertiveness and the inability to say ‘NO’?

By never saying ‘NO’ we very can very quickly end up feeling resentful towards others. You know — that family member or colleague constantly asking for “just one last favour.” And we frequently let the priorities of others take precedence over our own.

A lot of the time, we don’t want to upset anyone, or make someone think less of us. We don’t want to make people angry towards us, and perhaps we just feel uncomfortable saying the word ‘NO’. But I think mostly, we want to make a good impression i.e. at work we’ll take on extra work, even when our in-tray’s already full. And when we meet new friends, we agree to do things we don’t particularly want to do, we say ‘YES’ anyway.

We let people run rings round us. We feel overwhelmed, put upon, used, frustrated, tired or stressed. So, why do we do it to ourselves?

What does assertive mean?

People with mental illness often lack assertiveness
People with mental illness often lack assertiveness — Photo by artem-maltsev

The Cambridge English Dictionary says “Someone who is assertive behaves confidently, and is not frightened to say what they want or believe. Similarly, the Collins English Dictionary writes that “Someone who is assertive states their needs and opinions clearly, so that people listen, and take notice.

Assertiveness then, according to Skills you need, is a skill regularly referred to in social and communication skills training. Being assertive means being able to stand up for your own or other people’s rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive, or passively accepting ‘wrong’.

In other words: Assertiveness means standing up for your personal rights – expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways. It is important to note also that: By being assertive we should always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people. Those who behave assertively always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people as well as their own.

Assertiveness is a healthy way of communicating. It’s the ability to speak up for ourselves in a way that’s respectful and authentic. Most days, we’re in situations where being assertive helps us — like asking someone out, approaching a professor with a question, or doing well on a university, promotion or new job interview.

Passive, assertive or aggressive

Passive, assertive or aggressive

There are various ways we can behave or respond to others, particularly when there’s conflict i.e. in a passive, assertive or aggressive manner.

Passive behaviour generally means we put up with situations where we feel awkward, rather than being honest and saying what we think. We tend to apologise for our own views and put ourselves down rather than expressing them positively. “Sorry, I know I’m not very good at this. I probably agree with you really.”

Being assertive means being

  • honest with yourself and others, stating your own views authentically, clearly and concisely
  • self-confident and positive but not headstrong and contradictory, just for the sake of it
  • firm in expressing your opinion but, at the same time, understanding others’ views and being prepared to reach a workable compromise and
  • able stand up for your own rights and beliefs without dismissing the rights or opinions of others

Being aggressive in your communication with others is asserting your rights regardless of how others feel. You want to get your own way, even at the expense of others. Aggressive behaviour tends to have control at its heart.

Do you struggle with assertiveness?

This kid looks super self-confident
This kid looks super self-confident — Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

Do you:

  • wish you could turn down another request to babysit, stay late at work or run yet another tombola stall for your kids’ school?
  • become frustrated because you can’t make yourself heard above all the other ‘smart people’, even when you know you’re right?
  • do you wish you could put your hand up in school or work when people are asking questions and you know the answer?
  • lack the skills to disagree with others, even though you know they’re wrong?
  • feel that your views or opinions are not respected because you don’t command respect when you speak?
  • wish you could perform better in social situations, and know that you need better communications skills?

This list is not exhaustive but if you answered yes to any of the above, it seems likely that you struggle with assertiveness.

What to do when you struggle with assertiveness

Understand the impact of feelings and emotions – Photo by Annie Spratt

Being assertive means being direct about what you think, want, need, feel or believe — in a way that’s respectful to others. Being assertive can help in expressing your feelings, speaking assertively and can help manage conflict with others. It can build your self-confidence and improve relationships in every area. So here are a few ways to assert yourself in a kind but firm manner.

First, make the decision to assert yourself from here on in, and because you’ve committed to it, stick to it. Honestly it does get easier. And you’ll wonder why you never did it sooner.

  • Practice saying ‘NO’, in the mirror, or practice with a good friend. Have them ask you for favours and keep saying ‘NO’ without offering any reason or excuse. Remember, you don’t have to feel guilty for saying NO, and your decision does not need an explanation! You can say “No. not today Philomena,” if you feel you have to elaborate. Don’t hesitate, pause or waver. The second you say “Err! No. I can’t because…….” or “Erm, I think I’m busy that day…….” you’re giving the other person a ‘way in’ i.e. “Oh, go on. Please? You can do your essay any day. Please, I’m desperate.” You say “I said ‘NO‘ Anyway, how are you, how’s work…… blah, blah, blah.” Again, it gets easier with practice, trust me.
  • Use the “NO, but….” if you must i.e. “NO, I can’t stay late tonight but I’ll get onto it as soon as I come in tomorrow.” or “NO, I’m not babysitting for you again this weekend but why don’t you ask ………..?”
  • Stay calm, always. Breathe, look the other person in the eye, keep your face relaxed (smiling helps me stay calm and my face more relaxed) and speak in a pleasant but firm voice. You can smile, and still say ‘NO’, in a way that doesn’t look condescending or like you’re being sarcastic. It can be really hard knowing what to do if someone’s being aggressive towards you. It’s easy to get angry yourself, but if you can remain calm and assertive it’s more likely the situation won’t escalate, and you might be able to resolve the problem.
  • Remember that your time is as precious and valuable as the next person. Ensure you give yourself say half a day before accepting any further tasks, requests, or invites. There’s no reason to answer immediately, and waiting a while gives you time to think about whether it’s something that’s really worth your effort and time. Does it suit your plans, do you really want to tag along like a third wheel, what will you get out of it? If you fancy saying ‘NO’ after your half day, the person who asked the favour, should understand. You showed that you thought about their request and in turn they ought to respect your decision.  
  • Avoid guilt trips. Stay honest and tell others how you feel or what you want without making accusations or making them feel guilty, like “it’s your fault …….” or “if you didn’t do/say, I’d be……..”
  • Use the ‘I’ word, like “I felt sad when you said/did”, and “I think what you said/did was …….” Avoid statements like “You never take the bins out” cos I’m sure they have done sometimes or “You always …….” ‘cos this might not be true, and it comes across as aggressive.
  • Think about your communication skills and ask yourself honestly, do I have to work on them? Communicating effectively can help you build excellent relationships with the people around you and help develop your self-confidence. How do you come across to others? How do others come across to you? Watch people you admire when they’re communicating. See how they draw people to them and whether you can employ some of their skills.
  • Think about the attributes or characteristics you would like to have, and learn how to develop them i.e. compassion, empathy, kindness and emotional intelligence. Learn about and understand emotions and feelings and how you can best use them to benefit yourself and others around you.

Anything else?

Of course, there are many other ways to develop assertiveness and there are lots of online resources you might find helpful. Just remember that being assertive can help reduce feelings of frustration and anger and can be empowering. Let people know how you feel, what you want and what you need to happen to get it. I love this last piece from Teachonomy

Only Say YES to What Matters Most

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Everyone has a finite amount of time they can say yes in each season of life. Don’t waste them! First, define what matters most in your life. For most of us that would be our family and friends, however it can be just about anything you find to be important. Second, before you say yes to something make sure to ask a few questions. Will saying yes to this

  1. take away time from my family and close friends or hobbies?
  2. affect other obligations I have?
  3. take away from furthering the skills and knowledge I actually want or need?

If your answer to these questions is yes, than you might consider saying ‘NO’ to the question, favour or invitation.

Over to you


Has anything in this article resonated with you, and do you think it’s been helpful? Have you ever had difficulty in saying ‘NO’ and will you at least try to practice saying ‘NO’? Either in the mirror or with a trusted friend? I look forward to any comments, questions, insights or constructive criticism.


Author: mentalhealth360.uk

Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

24 thoughts on “Why do we struggle with assertiveness?”

  1. It took many years to say no without feeling guilty.
    I can’t remember exactly when I said no with ease, than it happened in previous evening employment I was once in that I couldn’t wait to leave from, with the bullying and how you was treated in general.

      1. I can remember the first no I did. But I did do it with a smug grin, because she deserved it. As I mentioned, bullying been going on a bit. Not just me, but there were others who felt the same when it came to attitudes of supervisors and management’s.
        It was my weekend off work and I went in with something that arrived for proof to get an annual leave sorted for this appointment.
        Now earlier in the week, as usual, work was criticised. The same old usual supposedly wrong except we couldn’t see it. But also we had extra work given but no extra time.
        Before I was leaving after sorting this annual leave, she asked if I fancied overtime on a ward cleaning, cos I am a brilliant worker and we’re desperate. I said no I am going back home where my hot mug of tea is and putting my feet up.
        I walked out with a grin because all of a sudden I am brilliant cleaner. Yet earlier in the week, me and my colleague were made to feel shit. So yes. A smug grin was definitely needed in this case. 😁

      2. Lol. of course, that was justified too. Flippin’ cheek of it! There are lots of people out there Liz, that once they get what they want (or if they don’t) then we’re of no use to them any more.

        But like your job — when they needed someone, they turn on the charm!

      3. Oh yeah, she tried to charm, saying I was a good worker. I bit my lip, cos I really wanted to rile and say it wasn’t what you was saying earlier this week. But I was off work and I was not going to have my time off work spoilt. So rubbed it in and said no. I have my mug of tea waiting back at home, (which I did, as I just brewed it) and I am going to drink that while having my feet up.

  2. Good post! I’m trying to be more comfortable with saying no, that sense of guilt is still there but I’m getting better at it. Thinking about what I’d be saying ‘yes’ is helpful for me, and I want to start keeping that in mind when I’m making a decision.

    1. I know, the first time I said NO to my brother-in-law when he asked if I could keep his daughter yet a fourth night!! He sounded so shocked on the phone and said “Oh, okay, no worries.” It took me over half an hour to stop trembling and during that time, I nearly called him back several times to say “Okay, yes.” He stopped asking so often 🙂

  3. I’m terrible for agreeing to do things that I really don’t want to do incase it hurts someones feelings or they think badly of me.

    It’s a new for me being able to say no to certain people, I still feel bad for it at times.

    Yet another area I am working on.

  4. Assertiveness is such a complex thing. We can be assertive in one area but totally passive in another. At work, I’m fairly good at being assertive if I have a clear rule (and I believe in the principle behind it) to back me up. With my family, I tend to say “yes” more than I should. Though that might have something to do with them complaining that I was too negative when I said “no” or pointed out the flaws in a plan as a kid.

    1. Lol, you’re right though, we ‘re probably all similar i.e. assertive in some but not in other areas.

      Families are difficult and different sometimes. I think because I’m physically disabled people don’t tend to put on me so much, thankfully 🙂

  5. So helpful and motivational to say whatever I have to say, who cares if it is simply a “No”

  6. I’ve just spent some time with a dear friend who finds it hard to say no To anyone. We whittled it’s down to her need to feel useful, since she no longer works (she’s 64) or is needed to care for family members (although her granddaughters treat her home like their own!)
    She’s trying to find something she can do for herself that will get her dopamine flowing but doesn’t know where to start looking as she’s not artistic or creative in any way.
    Any ideas folks?

    1. Thank you for your comments Gwen, and I feel for your friend. I’m (just a little bit) younger and was medically retired at the age of 50, so I can appreciate how she might be feeling. What about blogging? She must have some interesting tales to tell about marriage, life, relationships, having kids than grandchildren lol.

      Maybe swimming, yoga and stuff at her local gym?

      Any other ideas peeps?

  7. Assertiveness was modified after a traumatic brain injury. Recovering from a near-fatal accident in a hospital constantly agreeing to family, doctors, nurses and therapists made YES a consistent reply. Teaching myself to say NO was tough when you want others to ask for your for help to balance.

    What assisted changing my immediate reply of YES to NO is by having priorities for yourself and others. You cover this in the article, but would like to insist others to do the same. Saying NO to someone felt mean until I recognized my objectives. My mission to help myself and others in resilient recovery signified a top priority.

    Everyone has various goals in life, which should give you time to contemplate helping others. Accept questions after giving yourself time to consider the project won’t take away from personal goals.

    In summary, have goals to progress forward in your own life. These goals aren’t selfish when you aim to use your experience to help others.

    1. Sorry for the delay in responding; I’ve been a little low lately, following Christmas and New year festivities when I spent lots of time with family

      and friends, which is where I’m at my happiest 🙂 It’s been a bit quiet lately and I miss seeing everyone. Anyway, onward and upwards………. Thank you for commenting – you appear to have great insight – I’m guessing you have lived experience and seems like you’ve got NO down to a T 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by MonsterInsights